How did Halloween start? The strange history of Halloween – including trick or treating & carving jack-o’-lanterns – goes way, way back

History of Halloween - glowing Jack O lanterns - carved pumpkins

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The history of Halloween is rooted in ancient superstitions (from 1971)

Oidche Shamhna . . . Vigil of Samhain . . . Hogunnas Hallowmas . . . All Hallow’s Eve

These are all eerie names marking a holiday mostly celebrated by children today, but at one time or another, marked a grave pagan festival.

The ghosts and goblins, witches and spirits that are so much a part of Halloween today, have their roots in superstitions and folk customs dating back to the second century BC, when Druid priests of the Celtic people, in what is now Britain and France, celebrated the important feast of Oidhche Shamhna — the Vigil of Samhain, Lord of Death.

Antique artwork from the history of Halloween

It was believed that Samhain allowed the spirits of all who had died during the past 12 months to warm themselves by their home hearths on his feast, the last day of October, thus the still alive tradition that the dead walk on All Hallow’s Eve.

Other ancient superstitions surround the celebration of Halloween throughout the British Isles.

A research historian for Hallmark says that on Scotland’s lonely moors, the devil is said to appear in kilts on Halloween, playing bagpipes or clicking castanets made of dead men’s bones.

Legends and the history of Halloween

Looking back at the lengthy history of Halloween, you will find that legends from Ireland recount that country folk protected their animals against goblins and ghosts by placing around their necks bells that had been blessed.

Farmers there also put crossed branches of ash and juniper on stable doors at Halloween to prevent witches from harming their horses.

And, in England, there’s a time-honored myth that if a person eats a crust of bread just before retiring on Halloween, any wish he desires will be granted by morning.

Vintage Halloween witch postcard from the 1900s

The Halloween custom of “trick or treat” originated centuries ago in Ireland, when the Vigil of Samhain had become an open-air parliament held at Tara, late in October. after the fruits and crops had been harvested.

This gathering passed a law allowing farmers to go from house to house at Halloween, soliciting food for poor villagers. People who gave cheerfully were promised prosperity.

Those who were tightfisted were made to perform some embarrassing trick, like running three times around the village, under pain of vengeance by the god Muck Olla.

An offshoot of the custom was brought to the United States by 19th-century Irish immigrants as “trick or treat.”

The strange history of Halloween (1967)

Of all our holidays, few have histories stranger than Halloween. The eve of All Hallows is one of the most solemn festivals of the Christian Church, while at the same time, commemorating beings and rites with which the church has always been at war.

The American celebration rests on Scottish and Irish folk customs traced from Pre-Christian times.

The earliest Halloween celebrations were held by the Druids in the second century B. C., in honor of Samhain, Lord of the Dead. The festival was actually a joint one to Samhain and to the Sun god.

While Samhain assembled the souls of all those who had died during the year to release them to Druid Heaven, the Sun god received thanks for the year’s harvest.

History of Halloween card - Boy scared by ghouls and pumpkins

The history of Halloween going back to Samhain

In the old rites, horses were sacrificed to the Sun god, and humans, usually criminals, were sacrificed to Samhain. The latter practice was outlawed by the Romans, but survived in attenuated form.

For instance, in medieval Europe, black cats were sacrificed in the same manner. Black cats were chosen in the conviction that they were familiars of witches, or even witches themselves, and even today they represent evil to the superstitious.

Make a delicious, chocolate Ghosts in the Graveyard Halloween dessert with pudding & cookies (1997)

The incorporation of the feast of Samhain into the Christian calendar came about in an unusual way. All Hallows is a feast of the church celebrated in honor of all saints, known or unknown.

The church chose October 31 because it was already associated in the popular mind with a thronging of spirits of the dead.

The inclusion of witches, goblins and fairies into the rituals arose from the belief that these folk carried on an organized opposition to the church rites, and came to mock the All Saints celebration with revels of their own.

Vintage halloween drawings

DIY Halloween decorations on a budget: Fiendishly clever ideas from the days before party supply stores (1919)

The history of Halloween in Ireland, Scotland & America

In the Scottish Highlands, on the last day of autumn, the children go forth to gather dry ferns and branches for the fires. Logs and firewood are too precious to be burned with frivolity.

The gleanings are piled on the highest spot near the house and the fire is lit. Whole districts are bathed in the glow, various households vying with one another to have the biggest blaze, thus keeping the most goblins away.

In Scotland and Ireland, folks gather together for feasting and games. The adults — nibbling on nuts and apples, the traditional food eaten on Halloween, and sipping ale, Irish whisky or Drambuie — rock back and forth exchanging Halloween legends and stories in whispers, while the children spend the evening playing games of divination.

These games, supposedly directed by elves, fairies, and witches, who know the future, unveil prophecies about the coming year.

1959 Halloween Trick or treaters - kids with candy outside house at night

Halloween traditions and treats

One of the most popular games is called “To Burn Their Nits” (nits being nuts). Nuts are named for the boys and girls who are in love. The christened nuts are then placed on the hearth, by each “couple” in its turn.

Their reaction foretells the progress of the affair. If one nut catches fire and the other doesn’t, the one that flames will love madly and be rejected. If one or both crack and jump into the fire, the lovers will quarrel and separate. If both burn quietly together, the two young people will be married.

Children in Scotland, as in America, go to neighborhood homes begging for treats, a custom that originated with the Druids, who visited farmers to collect money for the gods. If the farmer gave he would prosper; if not, the gods would reap vengeance.

Vintage Halloween postcard - witch and pumpkin

Today’s housewife, be she Scottish, Irish or American, knows that if she hasn’t a stock of apples, candies, nuts or pennies available for “Trick or Treat,” she’s liable to find her door chalked up in the morning — not the work of gods, but of God’s little mischievous children!

History of Halloween and the background of the jack-o’-lantern

Halloween was not celebrated in America until after the Gaelic people immigrated here.

The colonists began the custom of gathering together on October 31. Since apples and nuts were ripe, they were served, and the evening often was called Snap Apple Night or Nutcrack Night in pioneer days.

These gatherings were scattered and regional, and it was not until the great Irish immigration after the potato famine in the 1840s that Halloween became a national holiday in the United States.

Strange Halloween facts from 1967

Irish legend claims the jack-o’-lantern originated with a poor drunkard named Jack, who was doomed to wander forever through Purgatory with only a live coal from Hell’s furnace carried in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.

Hello Halloween! Party food & fun for teens (1963)

For many generations, the Irish children who went out on Halloween night carried with them a turnip, rutabaga or large potato, painstakingly hollowed out, carved with grotesque faces, and lighted with candles to serve as lanterns at Halloween gatherings, to scare away the spooks and goblins.

It was only with the emigration of the Irish to the United States, and their discovery of the pumpkin that this member of the gourd family came into being as a symbol of Halloween.

The American imagination, of course, dwells on the fantastic and capricious rather than on the evil aspects of Halloween, and for this reason, we associate the holiday with the victory of the good (if mischievous) fairies and elves over the darker powers of witches, black cats and goblins.

Vintage black cat postcards

How did Halloween start? (1979)

Halloween was started a long, long time ago by the Druids, an order of priests in ancient England and France.

They were very superstitious, and believed that on October 31, the dead came back to earth, often in the form of animals. that’s why we dress up as ghosts and draw black cats on Halloween.

Around the same time in history, the Romans also had a harvest feast. That’s why we have apples, cider and nuts on Halloween.

History of Halloween - glowing Jack O lanterns - carved pumpkins

Much later, the Catholic church names November first All Saints’ Day. The evening before was a hallowed eve, or “Halloween,” when people used to knock on doors and ask for cakes for All Saints’ Day.

DIY Halloween decorations on a budget: Fiendishly clever ideas from the days before party supply stores (1919)

It’s always a treat to put on Health-Tex clothes, especially those cozy sweaters and soft flannel jogsuits and great-looking overalls and corduroy jeans and lots more, everything beautifully color-coordinated and with most with embroidery or appliques…

How did Halloween start? (1979)

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Maybe it was just in the place where I grew up, but as a kid in the 70s, Halloween didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Only very small children went trick-or-treating, and people didn’t decorate beyond a carved pumpkin or a paper skeleton taped to the front door. And the thought wouldn’t have occurred to my parents or any other adults to dress up in costume!! Of course, that was also the start of the “poisoned candy” hysteria when parents were fearful of razor blades in apples, loose candy laced with LSD, etc. These days, more teenagers than little kids trick-or-treat, and just as many people put out Halloween lights as they do Christmas lights. As I’m writing this (mid-August), most stores already have their Halloween merchandise on the shelves.

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